Turkey is heading to a referendum on granting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan new powers as early as next spring, ratcheting up tensions amid a crackdown on dissent and pro-Kurdish politicians, analysts say.
The courts have arrested over 35,000 people under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of the failed July 15 coup aimed at unseating Erdogan whose defeat the authorities see as a triumph of Turkish democracy.
But with 10 MPs from the main Kurdish party and the same number from the opposition Cumhuriyet daily imprisoned this month, critics say the focus of the crackdown has gone well beyond alleged supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Turkey blames for the plot.
The prime political concern of Erdogan following the failure of the coup has been winning support to change the existing constitution to create a presidential system.
Government officials argue a fully presidential system is needed to legalise what has become a de-facto situation, with Erdogan now Turkey’s undisputed number one after transforming the office of head of state.
To obtain the parliamentary super-majority required to call a referendum, Erdogan needs the support of MPs from the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli which strongly approves of a crackdown against the pro-Kurdish and leftist opposition.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told media that talks with the MHP were pushing Erdogan to be “very tough” on the main Kurdish political party as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“For the next six months we can expect to see a strongman, right-wing and nationalist programme from Erdogan,” he told media.
He said the changes would mean “he would be crowned head of state, head of government and head of the ruling party”.
Abdulkadir Selvi, a well-connected pro-Erdogan columnist at the Hurriyet daily, wrote that the current plan was to hold a referendum in April or May on the changes, which would also include naming a vice president and holding parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously.
Erdogan argued Friday that a presidential system — which the authorities say would be similar to that in France or the United States — “will give Turkey the chance for faster development”.
But the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — which after a breakthrough in 2015 polls is the third largest party in parliament ahead of the MHP — claim it has been targeted for daring to oppose a presidential system.
The HDP’s charismatic co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas, now jailed, made it a personal crusade to block the proposed changes.
“We stopped him (Erdogan) on the way to a presidential system,” said party deputy leader Hisyar Ozsoy. “For them, the HDP is the main obstacle and should be eliminated.”
The Turkish government insists that the HDP failed to distance itself from the PKK and its attacks on Turkish security forces and that the party has acted as a political front of the group.
International Crisis Group analyst Berkay Mandiraci said the PKK had escalated its actions after the coup while Ankara had intensified military operations and advanced a “domestic crackdown” against alleged PKK supporters.
According to an ICG toll, at least 2,301 people have died in the PKK conflict since July 2015.
“The countrywide political backdrop suggests a trend towards even more determined state policies,” Mandiraci said.
The round-ups have intensified Turkey’s rift with the European Union, whose latest accession progress report was its most critical yet.
The EU is also alarmed by the resurgence of the debate in Turkey on nullifying its abolition of the death penalty, whose prohibition is a condition for membership.
Erdogan was one of a handful of world leaders to receive a phone call from Donald Trump after his US election victory.
Ankara is hoping for an easier ride from Trump than it got from the Obama administration.
Marc Pierini, the visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said it may be “tempting” to consider the Trump presidency as a boost for Ankara and to expect him to be “less keen on focusing on rights and values in Turkey”.
But he cautioned: “Only when he becomes president will we know what Donald Trump’s intentions are in the foreign policy field and in Turkey.”
With the Turkish economy possibly contracting in the third quarter and the lira losing almost six percent against the dollar in the last month, the tensions could also hurt the economy.
“We think the hawkish stance is likely to be maintained, if not intensified further, to sustain this support through the referendum,” said Gokce Celik, chief economist at QNB Finansbank, warning this background might “affect the market sentiment negatively”.